Project-75, which involves building six Scorpene submarines in Mazagon Dock (MDL), Mumbai, had already been running five years late by the time the first one, INS Kalvari, was commissioned on December 14, 2017. With the navy reporting a host of problems in the second vessel, INS Khanderi, the project has now slipped by at least one more year. The navy has refused to commission the Khanderi into service until all its defects and deficiencies are fully rectified.
The defence ministry has fully supported the navy’s insistence that MDL and its technology partner, French warship builder Naval Group, deliver a fully seaworthy and battle-worthy vessel. “The liability of delivering a fully functional submarine is that of Naval Group. If we accept the boat with shortcomings, the liability would be on us,” said a senior admiral.
The most worrying problem the navy discovered during the Khanderi’s sea trials was a killer defect for a submarine: Its engines and propellers were emitting an unduly high level of noise.
A submarine’s effectiveness in battle, and its very survival, depends upon it remaining undetected. Enemy sonar detectors — mounted on aircraft, warships and submarines — search relentlessly for sounds emitted by enemy submarines. Once detected, a submarine is easy meat for enemy depth charges or torpedoes.
The Khanderi’s noisiness is not its only problem; the navy has pointed out 35 other defects and has demanded they be rectified before it commissions the vessel. Nor can these problems be addressed quickly, since 29 of them require to be tested when the sea is absolutely calm — or in what is termed “Sea State — 1”. With the monsoon imminent, calm seas are unlikely before September.
Another four issues require the submarine be docked in a navy dockyard for testing. This runs up against an existing docking schedule that dockyards have already issued, involving numerous other warships.
Meanwhile, the third Project-75 submarine, INS Karanj, has just begun trials. It is unclear whether there will be as many problems as with the Khanderi. The Indian Navy and MDL both declined to comment on the matter. However, neither of the two denied the existence of numerous defects in the Khanderi.
For the navy, which is making do with just 14 conventional submarines against a requirement of 24, the INS Khanderi delay extends a dangerous operational void.
Over recent years, both the navy’s nuclear submarines, the indigenous INS Arihant and the Russia-leased INS Chakra, have been out of action for extended spells after accidents.
Project 75 kicked off in 2005, when the navy signed a Rs 18,798 crore contract for MDL to build six conventional submarines, with technology transferred by Franco-Spanish consortium Armaris. All six Scorpenes were to be delivered between 2012-2015, but the sixth will only be delivered now by 2022.
Meanwhile, Armaris was taken over by France’s Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), and its cost went up to Rs 23,562 crore. In 2017, DCNS changed its name to Naval Group.
Besides INS Kalvari, the navy’s 14 conventional submarines include four 20-30 year-old, German-origin HDW 877 EKM boats (called the Sindhughosh-class); and nine 10-20 year-old, Russian-origin Kilo class Type 209 vessels (called the Shishumar class).
In addition to five more Scorpenes, six more conventional submarines are planned to be built under Project 75-I, by an Indian firm in partnership with a foreign vendor. Tendering for that is still to begin